Joel Swanson engages in wordplay at MCA Denver

Joel Swanson: Left to Right, Top to Bottom is currently occupying the main level at MCA Denver. The smart, elegant solo features work by Swanson, a Denver artist and director of the Technology, Arts & Media Program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It represents a career high point for him, as it's his first museum exhibition anywhere, not just his debut at the MCA. It was curated by Nora Burnett Abrams, who noticed Swanson a few years ago and determined that his work would be a perfect fit for the MCA.

Swanson's topic is words and their meanings — the show's title describes the way English is read — and he orchestrates an array of materials, including ink, aluminum, steel, neon and various photographic and digital techniques, to expound on his ideas.

The show begins with a wall that's been covered with 25,000 hand-drawn ampersands. It took Swanson — using a pen, a ladder and a laser level — five days to do it, something that adds a performance aspect to the show. The results are hypnotic and thought-provoking, and it sort of reminded me of a cross between an Agnes Martin and a Cy Twombly. And that threw the whole show into an abstract context for me. A couple of weeks ago, I discussed the rise of conceptual abstraction, and what Swanson is doing is related to that, except for the fact that he's pushed the idea through the looking glass and wound up with what could be called abstract conceptualism.


Joel Swanson

This impression is reinforced by one of the showstoppers in the gallery proper, "Logic Only Works in Two Dimensions" (pictured), a sculpture that looks like it might have fallen off a Mark di Suvero. It's a three-dimensional rendition of the mathematical inequality symbol for less/greater than, done in black-painted aluminum and hung from a mechanized ceiling mount by a steel cable. It resembles a rotating letter "V" on its side.

A number of pieces play with the meanings of words, like the untitled neon light that alternately flashes "un" and "non," a pair of negating prefixes; or "Homophone," a lenticular image with "rite," "right" and "write" morphing into one another as viewers walk by. Swanson is also interested in the spaces between the words — or before the words are even written. For "Space Bar," he has taken photos of five space bars isolated from their keyboards. In "Untitled (cursor)," a video monitor conveys a blank screen with a pulsing cursor up in the left top corner, as though waiting for someone to start writing.

The brilliantly beautiful Swanson show at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany Street, closes on March 30. Call 303-298-7554 or go to mcadenver.org for more information.

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